Extra, Extra: Finding work on the fringes of film

Terry Tan / Senior Staff Illustrator.

Terry Tan / Senior Staff Illustrator.

By Amanda Reed / Contributing Editor

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When Lena Gallagher walks on set, she can’t just go where she pleases. She has to walk at a specific pace in a specific path multiple times in a row until the director says “cut.”

But when  David Fincher’s new series, “Mindhunter,” premieres on Netflix in 2017, you won’t see Gallagher’s name in the credits. In fact, you won’t see her walking through a scene unless you’re looking for her.

Gallagher, a senior marketing major and film studies minor, is one about 2,000 to 3,000 extras, or people who consider themselves to be extras, in the Pittsburgh area. Although the Pittsburgh-area movie and TV extra business is small compared to other regions like Los Angeles and New York, the background actor scene is growing thanks to a 25 percent tax cut to productions who shoot in the area, expanding opportunities for those who want to get involved in the film industry.

“We wouldn’t have an [film] industry if we didn’t have the tax credit,” said Katie Shenot, a casting director at local talent agency, Nancy Mosser Casting. “I remember before the tax credit existed we’d get the occasional production, but it wasn’t like how it is now where it’s a steady stream. We are fully dependent on it.”

Many people devote hours of their time — usually all in one day — walking around, sitting at bars or serving coffee to people who only exist in our computer or TV screens. Most people, including Gallagher, don’t see extra work as a job or a money opp — it’s an experience.

“When I was an extra on set, I had a really great time. It’s definitely a long process, but it’s very cool to see a television scene being filmed right in front of you,” she said. “You get to really appreciate all of the work, all of the little details that go into creating even a small scene. They really strive for perfection, and it’s very cool to watch.”

Gallagher, who’s also a former intern at Nancy Mosser Casting in Lawrenceville, filmed “Mindhunter” this summer. The show is based on John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker’s 1995 true crime novel “Mind Hunter: Inside FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit.”

The series, set in 1979, will revolve around two FBI agents who interview imprisoned serial killers to try and solve ongoing cases.

Other notable productions that have come to Pittsburgh include “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Fathers and Daughters,” a film that brought celebrities Aaron Paul, Amanda Seyfried and Russell Crowe to the area in 2015.

Every time a production comes to the Steel City, open casting calls proliferate. But you can search the web for an opportunity at any given time. Current listings include wide open calls including one for “hip and trendy” background extras, ages 21 to 45 years for a upscale party scene and more specific roles: a Caucasian brunet male with a beard in his late twenties and thirties or an African-American female child, 12 to 14 years old for two half-day shoots.

“Every production is so different. There’s no quintessential thing that we’re looking for,” Shenot said. “It’s all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, backgrounds — it’s completely all inclusive and that’s what I love about it. It’s never boring.”

And it’s not hard, according to Gallagher, as long as you can take direction. The production team was very strict about the “no cell phones on set” rule specifically, she said.

“You definitely want to respect rules like this and listen when people on set tell you what you can and can’t do,” she said. “After all, being an extra and being on set is a pretty cool opportunity, and you don’t want to be disrespectful by blatantly disregarding the production rules.”

According to Shenot and Jennifer Nash, a casting director at Marinella Hume Casting — the casting company currently working on “Mindhunter” — a typical production day lasts between eight to 14 hours. Although it’s a large time commitment, there’s often lots of downtime, plenty of food and sometimes even Wi-Fi.

Call times can be early for extras, and, on top of that, they might sit around for a while until they have to go to set. Sometimes they have little-to-no time in holding and film all day. Sometimes, they’re in holding for 12 hours out of 14.

“You could go to set and be done in two hours.” Nash said. “In our case, we always pay our background actors for a full eight hours, even if [they’re] only there for two.”

Gallagher was paid minimum wage for her extra role on “Mindhunter,” and in general, casting companies usually pay their extras either minimum wage or $64 for eight hours.

Extras are paid minimum wage in Pittsburgh due to Screen Actors Guild and Pennsylvania guidelines. Since Pennsylvania is a Right to Work state — meaning no person can be compelled to join or not to join, or pay dues to a labor union like SAG — casting companies don’t have to go through SAG in order to find background actors.

For productions in New York and Los Angeles, casting companies can find extras through SAG, and thus an extra’s wage is higher in those fixed areas. According to a 2016 New York SAG guideline packet, a background extra’s minimum daily rate is $157.

“It’s not something you can have a full-time career doing,” Shenot noted. “Generally extra work is minimum wage, so it’s something not that can support that many people.”

If you’re an aspiring actor, hoping to one day take the silver screen as a leading lad or lady, taking on extra roles might be the path to catching your big break.

According to Shenot, there are a couple of tiers of background acting work. First, there are regular background actors who might perform simple tasks, like driving a car or walking their dog as the action plays out in front of them. Above them are background extras with special skills, like weapons training.

Then there are featured actors, whose names appear in the script, but have very few lines. Directors often pick featured actors because the character is based on certain physical attributes. Above them are body double and stand-ins who get higher billing since they have to look like a specific person. Then, there are costars, and, finally, the stars of the show.

“There’s no promise that a background actor will ever get a line,” Nash said, “but Kevin Costner and Brad Pitt both started as background actors, and many other people did as well. I was an actress for many, many years and the first thing I did was be a background actor.”

Gallagher, who wants to work in the entertainment industry, has now both helped schedule extras and been one herself during her time at Mosser Casting.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that I gained more respect for extras because I feel like I already had respect for them,” Gallagher said. “I think it’s really nice that so many people, many of whom aren’t even actors, are willing to come together and devote a day or so to being a part of a film or television production.”

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